Wouldn’t it be glorious if Abu Dhabi had a huge bookstore?
When I was little, I sometimes checked books out of the library based on how they smelled or how the pages opened in my hands. If the binding seemed too stiff or if the pages didn’t feel hospitable to my 10-year-old fingers, the book stayed on the shelf.
In those days, few things made me happier than eating my lunchtime sandwich with a book propped in front of me, allowing me the simultaneous pleasure of devouring both story and sandwich.
You will understand from this description, then, why no one in my family seemed particularly surprised when I announced that I wanted to be a literature professor. You will also understand why I have only very grudgingly come to the “e-reader” concept: I like the “thing-ness” of books, books as objects to be used and loved.
Expatriate life has made the e-reader a necessary evil, though: I read fast and travel frequently; actual books are expensive and heavy. So while I used to keep an endless queue of books on reserve at the public library in New York, or wander the aisles of used book stores, now a queue of digital titles spools across my iPad screen.
My husband has tossed the word “Luddite” in my direction. He may have muttered “dinosaur” under his breath as I complain about digital reading, and perhaps it’s true. My students, after all, willingly read on whatever device they find in front of them; my older son devours digital books; even my husband has adapted to this new world and skips from iPad to Kindle to smartphone.
Happily, however, my younger son shares my atavistic longings. He likes “real books”, as he calls them, and I can’t help but agree that digital books, somehow, aren’t “real”.
Real books you can lend to a friend; real books you can pick up years later and find a postcard from some long-ago trip tucked inside as a bookmark. When you look for “real books”, you stumble on discoveries in the shelves in a way that doesn’t happen with Amazon’s algorithmically generated recommendations. Sometimes I think we’re losing the idea of browsing, wandering through the stacks until something catches our eye. Now we point and click. Maybe we sift through the recommendations, but mostly we go on targeted searches. We’ve become goal-orientated. We toss out ever-narrower nets instead of letting ourselves drift through the waters of possibility.
The first time we visited Abu Dhabi, before we moved here, we did the obligatory day in Dubai, because my children wanted to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. And really, what better way to prepare for life in the UAE than to spend the day at the mall? Before making our ascent to the top, we spent a happy hour trolling the aisles of Kinokuniya, where only the thought of our overburdened suitcases (and concomitant airline surcharges) kept us from buying piles of books. We told ourselves that once we moved to Abu Dhabi, we would be at Kinokuniya “all the time”.
Well, it seems that if you live in Abu Dhabi and spend most of your life driving your children to football practice, the idea of driving to Dubai just to visit the bookstore seems less attractive. We’ve not been back to Kinokuniya since that first visit.
Instead, like most Abu Dhabi residents, we shop at Magrudy’s, or we download things, or we use the small lending library at our children’s school. But wouldn’t it be glorious if Abu Dhabi had its own huge bookstore, crammed with hard-to-find treasures? With each new mall opening, I hold my breath, hoping that maybe this time, I’ll find my page-filled paradise, but instead I find ... more shoe stores, more confectioners, more haute couture. Don’t get me wrong, I like a fancy outfit as much as the next person, but how much Dior can one city wear?
It’s true that in the extension at Al Wahda, there is a WH Smith and a Virgin, but they seem useful only for the latest YA dystopias and sparkly key-chains, not much else. So besides the happily overstuffed shelves at Thrift Books on Hamdan Street, the only other opportunity for book lovers (or book-likers) is at Ace Hardware on Yas. True, one doesn’t usually think of books and lawnmowers in the same breath, but maybe Book and Bean, tucked as it is into the garden section of Ace, wants to remind us of the pleasures of reading in the backyard under an umbrella.
So until Abu Dhabi has its own big bookstore, you’ll find me at the hardware store. I’ll be the one eating a sandwich and reading a book.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi
Updated: December 5, 2013 04:00 AM